College success = Access + Completion

For many years now, there has been a strong national focus on college access for low-income students. Thanks to the amazing, tireless work of many K-12 schools and the non-profit, community-based organizations (CBOs) in this space, progress is being made. According to reports by the National Student Clearinghouse, Education Trust, Pell Institute, and Pew Research Center, it is well-documented that over half of all low-income high school graduates are currently matriculating to college, and the enrollment gap with higher-income students is shrinking.

While college access remains a critical issue – and one we at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation continue to fund – it is simply not enough. In order to break the poverty cycle and transform the lives of low-income students and their families, these students need to leave college with a degree in hand.

But this isn’t happening at a high enough rate. Only 32 percent of low-income, first generation college-going students who enroll in a four year college will graduate within six years, according to the Pell Institute, versus a national average of 58 percent. As a result, people in the top income quartile are almost 9 times more likely to earn a college degree by the age of 24 than people in the bottom income quartile (77 percent and 9 percent, respectively)[1].

In order to break the poverty cycle and transform the lives of low-income students and their families, these students need to leave college with a degree in hand.

Access AND Completion

We funders need to balance our attention – and our dollars – on both access and completion for low-income college students, and possibly even tilt the scales in favor of supporting students after they’ve enrolled in college as opposed to before. At the foundation, we’ve already begun to do this: we’ve allocated up to 80 percent of our College Preparation & Completion spending budget on programs focused on serving students while they’re at college. This recent strategy shift was born from the realization that college access without college completion can be worse than no access at all. In other words, low-income students who enroll in college but don’t attain a degree are likely to be better off if they never even attended college.

Here’s why. For a low-income student who drops out of college after two years, there are several adversities that said student would not be facing if they went directly into the workforce after graduating from high school:

  • Debt accumulation – the student likely needed to use loans to pay for those two years of college, and if they did the average loan balance would be $10-15 thousand (based on the ~$30,000 national average debt load upon graduation for students using loans) which still needs to be repaid
  • Opportunity cost – the student could have spent those two years working full-time and earning money for herself and her family, rather than applying any part-time wages toward her education
  • Sense of failure – the student is likely to have lower self-esteem and reduced expectations for their capabilities going forward based on their status as a college dropout

Beyond those factors, there is also a broader impact beyond the student herself. Researchers often refer to the “ripple effect” that attending and completing college can have on the possibilities and anticipations of peers/siblings/cousins/children of low-income students, so it fair to assume that a reverse ripple effect also occurs when those students drop out of college.  If that student can’t complete college, why should their family and friends think that they can do it?

What if?

Students cannot complete college if they don’t first enroll, so there remains a strong need for programs that support low-income students during their pre-college years. But there also needs to be an equally strong and impactful push to help students reach the finish line and graduate from college.

This is a huge opportunity to begin to fill the gap of getting low-income students not only to, but through, college. We have made this shift in funding and we encourage the philanthropic community to consider the impact they could make if they also began supporting college completion programs at colleges and CBOs at comparable levels as their college access program funding. On the flip side, colleges and CBOs have their part to do and must provide compelling, impactful programs for funders to invest in.

What if this were to happen? We are confident that the performance gaps in college graduation rates between low- and higher-income students will see the same decline as is already occurring with college enrollment rates. And wouldn’t that be amazing?